This is the third of three articles adapted from Tracie McMillan’s new book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.
You can also read Part 1: I Got Hired To Do the Hardest Job at Applebee's, and Part 2: Who eats at Applebee’s—and why?
YO, FRY GUYS, I need a five-ounce, NOW. Hector and Luis, the two fry cooks giggling back by the freezer, jump visibly at my command.
I smile sweetly, reposition my voice an octave higher, a significant number of decibels lower. Please?
What you need, sweetheart? asks Hector.
A five-ounce, please.
Aiight, Ma, I got you, says Luis, and the other cooks titter on the line.
That was mad sexy, says Geoff, the Haitian cook manning the flattop, where burgers and quesadillas are made.
I felt that, says Rick, the server waiting on the five-ounce—slang for fries.
Well, you told me to bark, I say, pulling the five-ounce out of the window. Rick used to do expo before he served, so he tries to give me pointers when he sees me struggling. Pointers like, They’re not listening. You need to bark at them.
I can be loud when I have to be, I say, and I hand him his fries.
It’s Valentine’s Day, a Sunday, and last night we were packed; I walked in the door at noon and didn’t leave until midnight, going home just long enough to collapse into sleep and turn right back around. In at noon again, and I’m working the line with Terry, another kitchen manager, who drives me mad by pulling appetizer trios—infuriating platters containing a made-to-order constellation of appetizers that change with every customer, some nightmare I suspect was dreamed up by an executive who’s never worked the line during rush—and pushing them down to me at the far end of the line without the sauces. This means I have to double back and grab them out from under Terry, wasting time and energy. As the rush builds, Terry lets the printer tickets spiral down, down, down into the expo line, invariably dipping into the honey mustard. I grit my teeth every time he calls for a trio.
Tonight, what I really learn—and not for the last time—is just how little I know when it comes to my job.
It starts around 8 or 9. My eyes are burning—it’s all the gas in the kitchen, explains Freddie, offering to give me some eyedrops—and I’m blinking and rubbing my eyes furiously as the screen starts to fill up. By now, I know my place. I’m not good enough to direct the line, but I’m getting better at helping it move.
Here we go, says Freddie. He and Terry start pulling tickets and barking out dishes: Ribeyes, chopped steaks, Shrimp Islands with rice, kiddie hot dogs, Bourbon and New York strip steaks, garlic herb salmon, chicken penne pasta, shrimp pesto bowl, quesadilla burgers, hot wings on the bone and boneless honey barbeque wings. I duck in front of the managers, bending full over the pass so they can reach over me, and dress plates according to the laws I’ve managed to memorize: Ribs get coleslaw, anything that swims gets a lemon, anything with quesadilla in the name gets salsa, chicken fingers get honey mustard, fried shrimp gets cocktail sauce, fish filets get tartar, baked potatoes usually—but not always, I have to check the ticket—take butter and sour cream, and salmon gets smeared with garlic butter.
Let’s be clear: I’m no pro. For one thing, I don’t have the hands for it, a function of not yet having enough calluses. My hands are so tender that I yelp in pain regularly during service, once so badly that Geoff comes around from behind the line and, without warning, grasps my hand and massages ice onto my thumb. But the real reason I can’t pull plates is because I can’t identify dishes on sight and have to ask the cooks to tell me whether this steak is a rib eye or a nine-ounce.
At 9:30 I am shoved aside. The rush has slowed for the cooks but it has migrated to the pass, a stampede of meals run amok. There are bowls of pasta teetering curvily on top of each other; platters of ribs sitting in pyramids; towers of chicken baskets and trio plates hitting the top of the window. This food has to go out now. I’m ousted to the head of the pass, relegated to wiping down plates and checking orders against tickets before they go out. Now the real fun begins. Everyone’s working their own tickets, calling for plates from every window, a furious flurry of arms and cheap porcelain flying up and down the line. I’ve heard line work described as being as graceful as dance, but this is harder, faster, hotter, meaner. What comes to mind is neither battle nor ballet, but a simultaneous expression of both— capoeira. I work until 12:30.